Out of the Box: Marian Anderson & Leontyne Price

Feb 21, 2020

The stories and voices of two of America's most celebrated and pioneering singers star in this week's segment.

WHAT: Arias, art songs, and spirituals, performed by contralto Marian Anderson and soprano Leontyne Price.

WHY THIS MUSIC: Both of these woman were exceptional musicians, and both faced staggering adversity to present their art. I hope you take a moment to learn a little more about each of their stories, and then follow the links to learn a lot more. And of course, I hope you to listen to them sing, and swim in the startlingly exceptional instruments they each possessed.

This week's Out of the Box segment is no longer available on-demand.

Listen to select tracks from both Marian Anderson and Leontyne Prices careers.

MARIAN ANDERSON

“As long as you keep a person down, some part of you has to be down there to hold him down, so it means you cannot soar as you otherwise might.” – Marian Anderson

Marian Anderson was not at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, by choice. She had intended to sing at Constitution Hall. However, the Daughters of the Revolution, who owned the building, had, in an act that would enrage millions around the nation, forbidden it. No person of color was permitted to perform on their stage, regardless of how famous they might be. And so, on Easter Sunday, 1939, wrapped in a large fur coat, Marian Anderson stood, dignified and regal, before a crowd of 75,000 admirers, with a piano and the towering monument to Abraham Lincoln at her back. And then she began to sing:

"Her example of professionalism, uncompromising standards, overcoming obstacles, persistence, resiliency and undaunted spirit inspired me to believe that I could achieve goals that otherwise would have been unthought of." - Leontyne Price

“My country, ‘tis of thee…”

It wasn't until four years after the Lincoln Memorial concert that Anderson was finally invited to sing at Constitution Hall. Her sentiments toward the event were emblematic of the incredible poise, dignity, and grace with which she carried herself throughout her life.

“When I finally walked onto the stage,” she said later, “I felt no different than I had in other halls. There was no sense of triumph. I felt that it was a beautiful concert hall and I was very happy to sing there.”

Marian Anderson died in Portland Oregon in 1993 at 96 years old.

Read more deeply about the life of Marian Anderson in her the New York Times obituary.

Watch the PBS Newshour spotlight of Marian Anderson historic Lincoln Memorial concert

Marian Anderson as the secret guest in 1965 on What's My Line


 

LEONTYNE PRICE

“One of the things about this extraordinary instrument that I have is the blackness in it, the natural flavor. It’s something extra.” – Leontyne Price

In 1936, when Leontyne Price was nine years old, her mother took her to see the great Marian Anderson perform in Jackson, Mississippi. The young girl was smitten. “She came out,” remembered Price in a 2017 interview in the New York Times, “in a white satin gown, so majestic, and opened her mouth, and I thought, ‘This is it, mama. This is what I’m going to be.’”

Man, I love her as an artist. I love the way she sings Tosca. I wore out her recording of that, wore out two sets... She should be an inspiration for every musician, black or white. I know she is to me. - Miles Davis

And that is precisely what she went on to be.

Price was awarded a scholarship to Juilliard in 1948. In 1955, she sang the title role in Puccini’s Tosca for the NBC Opera Theater program, the first time an African American sang a leading role in a televised opera broadcast. Several network affiliates refused to air her performance. Three years later she was offered the opportunity to sing Verdi's Aida at the Metropolitan Opera, but turned it down, not wanting her debut in the legendary opera house to be in a racially stereotyped role. As her one-time husband, baritone William Warfield put it, “Leontyne is to be a great artist. When she makes her debut at the Met, she must do it as a lady, not a slave.”

In 1961, that opportunity came when she was offered five leading roles with the Met that season, beginning with Leonora in Verdi’s Il Trovatore, alongside superstar tenor Franco Corelli. Where Marian Anderson had been the first African American to sing at the Met, Leontyne Price became the first African American singer to be welcomed as a core member of the company. And just as Marian Anderson’s appearance on the Met stage was welcomed with a long ovation, that first performance from Price ended with a historic 35-minute ovation.

Over the next 24 years, Leontyne Price would sing 16 different roles at the Met, with more than 200 performances, along the way inspiring dozens of singers to pursue a career in music, just as Marian Anderson had inspired her. 

This year, Leontyne Price turned 93 years old.   

Learn more about Leontyne Price in a fantastic 2017 New York Times profile of the singer celebrating her 90th birthday.

Watch Leontyne Price sing an aria from Verdi's Il Trovatore